They say you should never judge a book by its cover and that’s certainly true of San Marino.
Don’t let the inconspicuous facade of its shop front on Chester Road fool you: inside is Sunderland’s No 1 restaurant – according to TripAdvisor.
I haven’t visited for years, but after reading the hundreds of recommendations I decided to see what all the fuss was about.
The addition of a faux Wisteria tree since my last visit, which creates a canopy of trailing flowers above diners’ heads, is a striking feature and has helped to make San Marino stand out from the more run-of-the-mill Italian restaurants. Sepia images of the Old Country adorning the walls also add to the air of romance. It’s a fairly small restaurant, but despite being cosy it doesn’t feel like you’re on top of other diners. Due to the size and popularity, however, it’s always best to make a reservation, I imagine walk in availability is few and far between on a weekend.
We visited pre-7pm on a Saturday when you can order from the early bird specials menu from which you can pick up any pizza or pasta classica for £6.25.
The main menu also runs alongside this offer, however, and it was too tempting to turn down. It offers the usual suspects of a classic Italian menu, such as calamari, garlic bread, linguine carbonara et al, but it also has more imaginative choices, such as Italian spiced scotch egg and crab and prawn lasagna.
To start, I chose the halloumi salad (£5.95), which arrived as a generous portion of six blocks of grilled halloumi, which worked well with slow roast tomatoes, salad and a moreishly rich home-made pesto sauce punctuated with pine nuts.
Next up, our mains arrived piping hot from the pass. I’d chosen the linguine scogliera which, because it contains seafood, is one of the pricier pasta options at £9.75, but most are priced under the £8 mark. The linguine was beautifully al dente, the kind of pasta you try to do at home, but never quite pull off.
Meanwhile, the light white wine, garlic and tomato sauce was the perfect base for the delicate flavours of the meaty king prawns, many mussels and plenty of smaller Greenland prawns. I mopped up every last bit with some of the San Marino home-made bread, which is so good it can be bought to take away.
Italian flavours flow through to the drinks menu too, with holiday classics such as Aperol Spritz (£5.95), a dangerous-sounding limoncello and Prosecco cocktail (£5.95), as well as bottles of Moretti (£4.95) and Peroni (£3.30).
Tea-time on a Saturday evening and the place was chock-a-bloc, but the staff seem well versed in juggling multiple covers and we couldn’t fault the friendliness and attentiveness of our waiter.
We’d hoped to take home some of their excellent rosemary bread, but they only had enough for that evening’s service. Probably a good thing, as it was so delicious it wouldn’t have lasted long with a block of butter.